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Why Time Matters

When you learn new facts, interact with colleagues and teachers, experiment with new gadgets, or engage in countless other learning activities, timing plays a role in the functioning of your neurons, in the communication between and within sensory systems, and in the interactions between different regions of your brain. The success or failure of attempts to communicate using gestures, expressions and verbal language also depend on timing.

In short, timing is critical for learning at every level, from learning the precise temporal patterns of speech sounds, to learning appropriate sequences of movements, to optimal training and instructional schedules for learning, to interpreting the streams of social signals that reinforce learning in the classroom.

Learning depends on the fine-scale structure of the timing between stimuli, response, and reward. The brain is exquisitely sensitive to the temporal structure of sensory experience:

at the millisecond time scale in the auditory system;
at the second time scale in reinforcement learning;
at the minute time scale for action-perception adaptation; and
at the day-to-week time scale for consolidation and maturation.

Each level of learning has its own temporal dynamics, and its own timing constraints that affect learning. These levels are not independent, but instead, timing constraints at one level affect learning at another level in a nested way. For example, the dynamics at the cellular level, which is often on the order of milliseconds, implement learning on the whole-brain and behavioral level on much longer time scales, including memories that last a lifetime.

The past decade of neuroscience research demonstrates that the intrinsic temporal dynamics of processes within the brain also reinforce and constrain learning. For example, we have discovered that slow learners tend to have slow "shutter speeds" in terms of how their brains take in and process information. For some poor readers, the underlying problem is the their inability to perceive fast acoustic changes in speech sounds (phonemes) that must be accurately perceived in order to learn letter-sound correspondence rules for reading. Neuroscience-based training regimes that improve this temporal processing ability improve both spoken and written language learning in struggling readers.

Successful learning depends on timing and it occurs within a continuous temporal framework, so by investigating the temporal dynamics of learning we can change the capacity of children to learn, as well as change the environment to aid in learning. Yet it is only recently that the temporal dynamics necessary for flexible and adaptive learning have become a focus in educational settings - despite the relevance of time to all aspects of learning, action, and neural coding.